Jim Reed, Senatorial Immortal: A Biography
By Lee Meriwether.
Kessinger Publishing (Whitefish, Montana)
296 pp., $28.95 paper, 2007

Sen. James Alexander Reed of Missouri was one of the titans of the isolationist, individualist Old Right—though, like others of that cohort, he did not think of himself as either “old” or “right.” He belongs in the company of senators like William Borah of Idaho, Burton Wheeler of Montana, and Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, Jeffersonians all and implacable foes of the concentration of power in big government or big business. Today, apart from the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area outside Kansas City, Reed is little remembered. But in his time he was a leading opponent of Woodrow Wilson, the Versailles Treaty, the League of Nations, Prohibition, conscription, religious intolerance, tariffs, taxes, and the New Deal. True to the progressive politics of his era, he also sought to bust trusts and limit campaign expenditures.

H.L. Mencken was a friend and admirer. Oswald Garrison Villard, libertarian editor of The Nation when such a thing was possible, likened him to Andrew Jackson: “the latter also a bold, handsome, swashbuckling, hard-drinking roistering, dueling leader of men, of much the same political viewpoint.” Other contemporaries compared his eloquence to that of Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay. Jim Reed, as he was known to voters and colleagues alike, was a force.

When Reed retired from the Senate after 18 years in 1929, Mencken proclaimed it a “wonder that he survived so long in the Senate” and doubted that this was due to “any extraordinary acumen in his fellow Missourians: they show the normal American weakness for charlatans.” Here the Sage of Baltimore was only half-right. Missouri, after all, produced Mark Twain, another man Mencken much admired and the greatest scourge of charlatanism America has seen. Missourians fall for their share of quacks. But they also have a sense of realism and skepticism uncommon even for the Midwest, as symbolized by the state’s nickname, the Show Me State. Reed was a true son in spirit of the land of Mark Twain and Josey Wales.

Fittingly, the only biography of Senator Reed that has yet been written, Lee Meriwether’s Jim Reed, Senatorial Immortal, was originally published by the International Mark Twain Society in Webster Groves, Missouri. It has now been brought back into print through the good offices of Kessinger Publishing of Whitefish, Montana, a company that specializes in rescuing rare books from the national memory hole. (One hopes Kessinger , or a larger publisher, will provide the same service for Villard’s Prophets True and False, which includes his take on Reed.) Meriwether became fast friends with the senator in 1918, when Reed took on the State Department to get Meriwether’s War Diary of a Diplomat published. After Reed’s death in 1944, his widow asked Meriwether to write the biography. (Nell Reed was a remarkable figure in her own right, a women’s garments manufacturer once hailed by Fortune as perhaps the country’s most successful businesswoman.)

Meriwether writes sympathetically and engagingly of his friend. Even as a humble farm boy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Reed made a name for himself as an orator. In 1880, he was to give a graduation speech to his class at Cedar Rapids High School. But the topic he chose, “Free Thought,” was unacceptable to the principal. When Reed refused to rewrite the speech, the principal denied him his diploma. According to Meriwether, “This episode had a profound effect upon his whole later life,” confirming Reed in his commitment to religious liberty. “Jew baiters, anti-Catholics, Ku Klux Klanners—all were to become the targets of his eloquent denunciations.”

Scandal of a different sort precipitated Reed’s move to Kansas City. At 26, he fell in love with a married older woman, Lura Olmstead. She divorced, he married her, and they left Iowa. Missouri, with its alloy of Western individualism and Southern grace, proved a more forgiving place, and Meriwether paints a vivid picture of K.C. as a “town of 30,000 where the West met the East with frontier abandon.” Reed entered politics almost by accident after stumbling upon a meeting of the American Protective Association. “I was amazed,” he recounted to Meriwether, “to hear speaker after speaker hiss hatred for all Jews, Catholics and Negroes,” and given the opportunity to address the gathering, he told them exactly what he thought of such bigotry. Word spread quickly: the people of Kansas City appreciated this newcomer’s courage and principle. They soon made him public prosecutor—he won 285 out of 287 cases brought to trial; one of the two that got away was Jesse James Jr., politically connected son of the famous outlaw—then mayor. In 1910, he won election to the U.S. Senate.

Meriwether’s account of Reed’s early years in the Senate leaves much to be desired. Perhaps because memories of the Good War were still fresh when he wrote Jim Reed, Meriwether says little about the senator’s views on World War I. Unlike Missouri’s senior senator, William J. Stone, one of just five senators to oppose the war, Reed voted for Wilson’s war declaration in 1917—though unlike Stone, Reed voted against imposing conscription once the resolution passed. Villard suggests that Reed “fought a losing fight against the manoeuvres which eventually led the United States into war”; afterward, Reed valiantly opposed wartime censorship and rationing. (He mercilessly mocked the Food Administration’s Herbert Hoover, who spent much of the war in London, as “Sir Herbert Hoover” and “that great British statesman.”)

Compensating for the dearth of detail about Reed’s role in World War I, Meriwether has several chapters on the senator’s campaign against the League of Nations and the Versailles Treaty. Reed was one of only five senators to oppose the League from the outset (the others being Borah, Hiram Johnson of California, Frank Brandigee of Connecticut, and Charles Thomas of Colorado). “Were we a League member we would be bound by treaty to enter every war that may occur anywhere in the world,” he warned. He had vexed Woodrow Wilson before, but this was too much. Reed and his allies defeated the League, so Wilson, even after his term as president ended, tried to defeat Reed. Wilson supported a primary challenge against him in 1922, and many Missouri Democrats sided with the party leader against their own senator. The League of Women Voters, which considered Reed an enemy of women’s suffrage and child-labor regulation, targeted him as well, forming “Rid of us of Reed” Clubs. The Anti-Saloon League and Ku Klux Klan piled on, but Reed won the primary, then won the general election by a bigger margin than the last time. All Wilson could deny his nemesis was a seat at the Democratic National Convention in 1924.

Reed’s third term was to be his last. In 1928, disgusted by Prohibition and colleagues who “vote dry and drink wet,” he announced his retirement. After leaving office, he did what even then was highly unusual for a national politician: He went back to where he came from.

“I want to live in Missouri,” he told Meriwether, “there never has been a moment in Washington that I have not felt that I was away from home.” Ten thousand of his fellow Missourians turned out to meet him at Kansas City’s Union Station on March 9, 1929, his homecoming.

That was no end to his public life. As a lawyer, he took part in some of the most sensational cases of the day, including an antitrust suit against the motion picture industry (he defended Harry Warner and won) and a $30,000,000 suit against Standard Oil and Shell (he got $25,000,000 for his client). He won acquittal for a woman who had shot her husband dead, in full view of witnesses, at a card table. And he had a hand in rescuing Nell Donnelly, who was to become his second wife after Lura’s death, when she and her chauffeur were kidnapped. In failing health, he returned to the political circuit to speak against Franklin Roosevelt. His last public talk, in 1944, the year he died, was on “Common Sense in Government.” Contrasting New Deal paternalism to the old Republic’s individualism, he declared: “Common sense government does not undertake to create impossible Utopias or waste its energies in vain attempts to remake the world, or to alter the course of human nature. It deals with conditions as they exist; it seeks in a practical way to produce the best possible result with the materials at hand.”

There is no more conservative credo than that. Jim Reed’s wisdom has been little heeded. But Kessinger Publishing has at last given this great Missourian a chance to be heard again—if only we will listen.

Daniel McCarthy is an associate editor of the American Conservative.